Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Dustin Weaver
Colorist: Christina Strain
Letterer: Todd Klein
Being a Marvel fan is a difficult thing. You’re at the mercy of editorial edict when it comes to how far any given plotline can advance in a single book, which means months of timekill in the book you’re reading while other writers move pawns on the board. Books with great writers might have less-than-great artists, while books with phenomenal art talent might sport atrocious writing. Worst of all, you might get behind a great title, only to watch it vanish due to low sales five or six issues later.
Thus, my dilemma with SHIELD. Make no mistake, this is a fucking fantastic first issue from Hickman and Co. Even Joe Quesada thinks it’s a great book… but I’m hesitant to get attached this soon. S.W.O.R.D. was a solid adventuring-couple book featuring an X-Man in a lead role, and it tanked. How much worse is a multi-layered, da Vinci-inspired, first-principles retcon of the history of the entire Marvel Universe going to do in this market? I’m afraid of the answer, honestly, because I want Marvel to do more books like these, and I’m not sure it’s feasible on a straight financial level for them.
As always, the visual design of the book screams “I am a Jonathan Hickman production,” and that’s one of the great things about his work. Hickman’s design sense is publisher-agnostic– if you see clean chart work, liberal use of Arial, and predominant browns and ambers in the color palette, you know it’s a Hickman book. Sure, in SHIELD, the storytelling hews closely to the Marvel house style, but the underlying creator-owned sensibility is there in all the little touches. You know what you’re getting when you pick this up; Hickman’s solidly established his brand and sticks to it.
That fundamental reliability spills over into the narrative of SHIELD, too. Hickman’s becoming a Ken Burns for the Invisibles set; he’s a documentarian of universes that never were, alternately enlightening and confounding his viewership with his research. The major themes here are familiar– the evolution of human potential, the predestined course of history, the duality of light and darkness. Anyone who’s familiar with Hickman’s work on Secret Warriors and Fantastic Four will find a lot of shared ground in SHIELD. POV character Leonid is chosen for a higher destiny in a manner reminiscent of Reed’s elevation to the Council of Reeds in “Solve Everything.” The ongoing battle between S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA that underpins Secret Warriors‘ “Wake the Beast” arc is obliquely referenced in a cryptic scene involving Han Dynasty warriors and a Celestial. There’s a mysterious hidden city, equally as weird as Attilan or any of the other cities of the current FF arc. The book is firmly grounded in what Hickman’s been doing all along in the 616 Marvel Universe, and that’s a positive sign.
And, of course, huge chunks of it are unabashed “so, how nerdy are you about science, progress, and the Marvel Unverse?” fanservice. Galactus! Galileo! Apocalypse! Leonardo da Vinci in steampunk power armor! An early Fist of Khonshu! Imhotep tearing chunks out of the Brood and posing like Cap! If you’ve ever thought that an episode of The Universe would be improved by Brian Cox talking about the Ultimate Nullifier, this book is exactly what you’ve always wanted Marvel to do for you. It’s every bit as audacious in concept and execution as The Nightly News was, which is something the mega-crossover-bound Marvel Universe has desperately needed.
Dustin Weaver provides rock-solid art throughout, which is no mean feat given the scope of Hickman’s vision here. Not every Marvel artist gets to go from New York in 1953 to 2620 BC in six pages with a stop in a Mysterious Underground City, after all, and Weaver makes it look easy. Christina Strain comes off her strong work on Pixie Strikes Back to deliver equally accomplished colors here, playing light and shadow off one another to create a visual metaphor for SHIELD’s battle against the premature end of human existence. The two-page spread of Rome late in the issue shows a confident synergy between Weaver and Strain; it looks good, it recalls the work of Moebius without slavishly imitating his style, and it made me have to stop and put the book down to get my shit together and keep reading.
April’s a little early to declare anything a frontrunner for “best books of the year.” There’s a lot of stuff coming up this summer that I want to see before I make any predictions– the Heroic Age Avengers titles, Madame Xanadu‘s female-artist showcase arc “Extra-Sensory,” the ongoing awesomeness that is Demo‘s second volume. Talk to me in September, though, and I think I might be able to say some very nice things about where Hickman, Weaver, and Strain are taking SHIELD.
Or, you know, it’ll be over by then. Perhaps you should all buy two, and give a copy to your best buddy who likes science porn and Celestials… just in case. I’ve already offered to FedEx mine to a friend in Massachusetts.